So you want to get into design, kid?

Over the past months, I have gotten more and more interested on how programming languages are designed, why such decisions are made, and the compiler role into this. I think that I started getting interested because of a current research around Golang’s compiler, and I got amazed by the amount of beauty that designing a language can create.

Lurking into Golang’s archive and talks [1], I stumbled upon two very interesting papers that influenced their design. Those papers are “Hints on Programming Language Design” [2] by C. A. R. Hoare and “Everything You’ve Wanted to Know about Programming Languages but Have Been Afraid to Ask” [3] by C. A. R. Hoare, as well. Those two papers inspired me to reach to other sources so I can learn about programming language design, which, as Hoare says should “help the programmer in the practice of his (probably, ‘their’, sic) art”.

Of course, a big portion of programming languages and their use is the design of the compiler that the programming language uses or at least an understanding how it behaves. So in this blogpost, we will also list resources for learning compiler design.

The resources that are going to be listed here are the result of a tweet I sent from my personal account [4]. Lots of very interesting answers were made from people who have actually designed the programming languages that we use everyday. So, in order to make that thread more useful, I’ll list them nicely here. Note that I have not yet read all of these books, so the small review that accompanies the resources on the list is based on other people’s opinions or the result of me skimming over them. I’ll eventually make blogposts of the ones I read ;)

Programming language design


  • The one and only Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP) or the Wizard Book by Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman. A must book that every programmer should read, as it teaches the fundamental principles of computer programming. A book recommended by basically everyone.
  • Programming Language Pragmatics by Michael Lee Scott. The book I’m currently reading which explains why programming languages work. A book super recommended as well.
  • Practical Foundations for Programming Languages (Second Edition) by Robert Harper [5], as recommended by Eric Christopher (@echristo). As the author states, “a comprehensive framework for formulating and analyzing a broad range of ideas in programming languages”. It is worth also checking the website which contains lots of supplementary materials.
  • Types and Programming Languages by Benjamin C. Pierce, as recommended by Shriram Krishnamurthi (@ShriramKMurthi) and @1stSV_97. It is a comprehensive introduction both to type systems in computer science and to the basic theory of programming language.
  • Essentials of Programming Languages by Daniel P. Friedman, Mitchell Wand, and Christopher T. Haynes , as recommended by Shriram Krishnamurthi (@ShriramKMurthi). A deep, working understanding of the essential concepts of programming languages. This will be my next book to read. People say that the first edition is the best one ;)
  • Programming Languages: Application and Interpretation [6] by Shriram Krishnamurthi himself. I’m very eager to read this book, so expect a review.
  • Crafting Interpreters by Bob Nystrom (@munificentbob) [7], as recommended by @mostlysafe. It focuses on learning everything you need to actually implement a scripting language.
  • The Design and Evolution of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup (the inventor of C++), as recommended by Shafik Yaghmour (@shafikyaghmour). As the recommender refers, it gives “a solid understanding of why trade-offs are made” in the language. This book obviously focuses on the decisions made during the development of the C++ programming language; but it also gives insights on the object-oriented programming philosophy.
  • Implementation of Functional Programming Language by Simon Peyton Jones [8], as recommended by @MarisaVeryMoe. This book is out of print but you can find its entirety in PDF form. An excellent book for anyone interested in functional programming.
  • The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles by Noam Nisan and Shimon Schocken, as recommended by Lars Tackmann (@ltackmann). This book does not only focuses on programming language design but of all applied computer science.


As Jeff Dean states (@JeffDean), after reading enough books, it is always worth checking the reading list of different graduate courses. Here just two suggested:

  • ‘Implementation of Programming Languages’ (CSE 501) from the ‘Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It is a must to check the reading papers for this course.
  • ‘Concepts of Programming Languages’ (CSE 505) from the ‘Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It is a must to check the reading papers for this course.

Compiler design


  • Engineering a Compiler by Keith Cooper and Linda Torczon, as recommended by John Regehr (@johnregehr). It covers the important techniques for constructing a modern compiler.
  • Building an Optimizing Compiler by Bob Morgan, as recommended by Eric Christopher (@echristo). It provides a high level design for a thorough optimizer, code generator, scheduler and register allocator for a generic modern RISC processor.
  • The GCC list of compiler books [9]. The list of compiler books by default, with enough review for you to make a choice.
  • Modern Compiler Implement in ML by Andrew W. Appel, as recommended by @xandkar. A book that describes all phases of a modern compiler.

Conferences to attend

Something that helped me on my cryptography journey was to attend conferences. I’ll like to start to do that as well for PL, so these are the conferences that seem like a must to attend:

  • History of Programming Languages (HOPL) [10]. It’s fourth edition is happening on 2021, and it is a MUST to attend. It is also very nice to check the papers presented over the past editions.
  • ACM SIGPLAN Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages (POPL) [11]. A conference to discuss aspects of programming languages.
  • ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation (PLDI) [12]. A conference not only about design but also about implementation. I’m very excited to attend this year, so expect a blogpost about it.
  • ACM SIGPLAN International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP) [13]. For those who love functional programming.
  • ACM SIGPLAN Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages & Applications (OOPSLA) [14]. For those who love object-oriented programming.

To follow

I often find useful to follow people and read their thoughts. Note that, often times, these places are personal, so don’t only expect ‘computer science’ stuff, and treat them nicely.

  • For computer science and amazing thoughts: the blog of Robert Harper [15].
  • For LLVM and compilers: the blog of John Regehr [16].
  • For C++, C#, Diversity and much more amazing content: the website of Patricia Aas [17].

Basically, that is it. I’ll like to thank the amazing people that gave me recommendations and whose work inspire me to continue on the journey (they are everywhere mentioned on this blogpost). I hope it does for you, as well.


  1. “Go” by Rob Pike, Mar 18, 2015. Available here.
  2. “Hints on programming language design” by C. A. R. Hoare, Dec, 1973. Available here.
  3. “Everything You’ve Wanted to Know about Programming Languages but Have Been Afraid to Ask” by C. A. R. Hoare, Dec, 1973. Available here.
  4. Tweet sent by Sofía Celi. Available here.
  5. Available here.
  6. The website is here.
  7. Available here.
  8. Available here.
  9. Available here.
  10. Read about it here.
  11. Its 2021 website. Available here.
  12. Its 2020 website. Available here.
  13. Its 2020 website: Available here.
  14. Read about it here.
  15. Available here.
  16. Available here.
  17. Available here.